TALLAHASSEE -- Private online learning companies will get a better shot at Florida public school funding under a bill that won approval on the final day of the legislative session.
Though the vote garnered little attention from outside observers, Republicans hailed it as among the year's most important victories for school choice.
"We want to open up access and give our kids the very best," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, who sponsored the bill in the House.
But Democrats were outraged that the final action took place on the last day of the session -- and only hours after lawmakers reduced the funding for Florida's public virtual school.
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Taken together, critics said, the moves were a clear effort to privatize public education.
"If you want to get at the largest portion of the state budget that has not been privatized, it is education," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union. "That's what this is all about. This is about allowing outside vendors to get a piece of the action."
School choice debates are often among the most contentious in Tallahassee.
For nearly two decades, the Florida Legislature has been expanding choice options, ranging from privately managed charter schools to voucher programs. In 2011, the Legislature made it a requirement for all high school students to complete at least one course online, creating a guaranteed market for online learning services. Virtual schooling took center stage again this year.
Currently, students can enroll full time in the public Florida Virtual School or use the program to satisfy the graduation requirement. School systems can also open their own franchise of Florida Virtual and have the option of contracting with a handful of state-approved private virtual learning providers.
Some of those private providers have recently come under scrutiny . Last year, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found that K12, an online education company that does business with 43 Florida school districts, had used teachers with improper certifications and asked employees to cover up the practice.
K12 and other providers were active in Tallahassee this year.
During the last election cycle, K12 made $21,000 in campaign contributions to Republicans in state House races and gave $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, state elections records show. Both K12 and Kaplan, which has also done business with the state, hired high-profile lobbyist Jim Horne, a former state senator who also represents Associated Industries of Florida.
Horne did not return calls seeking comment.
V Schoolz, an e-learning company backed by South Florida entrepreneur Wayne Huizenga, had power-lobbyist Ron Book leading its efforts. During committee meetings, Book urged lawmakers to break up the "semi-monopoly" held by Florida Virtual School.
The proposal the Legislature passed would allow private providers to bypass some of the vetting process and be approved on a trial basis. It would also open the door to out-of-state providers, which have historically been disallowed.
The bill also allows the state education department to study Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, for consideration in the future.
During an intense debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, likened the idea to "letting the outstanding [providers] from around the world come to the state of Florida, and allowing our teachers and students to decide what's best for them."
Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, offered a different description: "Another way to privatize our public schools."
A day before the final vote on the bill, the two chambers had approved changes to the state's school financing formula that would cut the amount of money Florida Virtual and other providers receive for every part-time student they enroll. Representatives from Florida Virtual said the changes would hurt their bottom line and force them to scale back their offerings.
Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said the back-to-back moves weren't a coincidence.
"We spend all of this money, time and energy trying to beef up our own virtual platform, Florida Virtual School, and all of a sudden, we are cutting them and allowing outside providers nationwide to come in and take a chunk of the pot of money," Bullard said.
Both the bill and the budget are awaiting final approval from Gov. Rick Scott.
Diaz, who sponsored the proposal and works as an assistant principal in Miami-Dade, has insisted it "is not about private business."
"What we're talking about is access to courses that may be given by Harvard or MIT," he said during a debate on the House floor. "What we're doing here is not replacing Florida Virtual, by any stretch of the imagination. We're trying to provide more access to our students, especially those students who are advanced and who learn better by this modality."
Diaz points to other provisions in the bill that do nothing for private providers. For example, the bill lets students take courses at virtual schools based in other counties.
"If we want to be a leader in education, we have to keep up with the technology and explore these avenues," he said.